Raymond Carver and Grandpa

"The call came over the telephone mounted on the farmhouse wall."
“The call came over the telephone mounted on the farmhouse wall.”

Everyone is telling me I need to look into Raymond Carver.

Somehow I had grown up in America, and lived to a ripe old age without becoming acquainted with the guy. I know, I’m culturally deprived.

This year, even though he died in 1988, Carver seems to be everywhere. I go to see the movie “Birdman,” and it’s centered around a play-within-the-movie, and the play is based on a Carver short story.

My Favorite Living Writer, Mary Karr, says she knew Carver and loves him.

My friends Seth and Mark both tell me that I need to get familiar with Carver. Seth lends me his complete collection of Carver’s poems, “All of Us.”

I’m hesitant and skeptical. First of all, Carver writes in free verse. I’m old school.

A lot of his early work is very dark with a dose of self pity.

So you had a hard life with lousy parents? So you’re an alcoholic?

I’m just not a big fan of wallowing in the muck.

My friends encourage me to stick with it.

“He does have some winners once he sobers up and starts reminiscing,” says Seth. Mark says I need to check out his later stuff.

So I read on.

Then, I come to Carver’s poem, “Another Mystery.”

It begins with a young boy going with his father to the dry cleaners to pick up his grandfather’s burial suit. It proceeds with the death of his father many years later. and finally concludes with the boy, now grown, picking up his own suit from the cleaners and dredging up the old memories from the past.

This one got me.

I had already been working on a poem about my own grandfather, and I was touched by how Carver handled similar subject matter. In fact, our poems were about very similar moments in a young boy’s life, remembered years later.

I’m not claiming this poem is anything like Carver’s in much but subject matter, but I was struck by the coincidence.

Oh yeah. Both are free verse. I decided to take the net down and knock the ball around without worrying about rhyme and meter.

The Day the Call Came

The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.

The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.

The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.

So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.

By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.

Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.

The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.

Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.

And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family’s eldest male,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.

By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.

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Lilac time

Lilacs
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”

I owe some of my enthusiasm for poetry to my 11th grade English teacher back at Marshall High School in Marshall, Missouri–Paul Hagedorn.

He devoted an inordinate amount of time that year to the study of poetry. Our major assignment for the whole year, as I recall, was two-fold. We were to create a poetry notebook in which we copied — and illustrated, if we desired — a good number of poems that spoke to our hearts.

He encouraged us to venture beyond the usual suspects. So, along with poems by Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson, I included lyrics by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Then, we were to pick one American poet from a prescribed list of lesser known poets, and write a lengthy term paper on our choice. (I choose John Crowe Ransom because I thought his name was cool. Incidentally, I’m was happy with my choice.)

Mr. Hagedorn passionately believed that Walt Whitman was the greatest poet that had ever lived and he did his best to infect his impressionable students with this enthusiasm. I dutifully bought a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass,” and read the whole thing.

I failed to completely fall in love with Whitman. Some passages were interesting and hypnotic. I recognized some of the cadence of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. He clearly was making an ambitious attempt to encompass the breadth and depth of all of America in his work. I appreciated that he was attempting to do something had not been done before in American poetry.  But I never could figure out why my teacher was such a Whitman nut.

One poem that did thrill me, however, was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I understood it was an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 14, 1864, just days after the end of the Civil War.

Lilacs were my mother’s favorite flower, and she had passed along that enthusiasm to me. So I was predisposed to be open to any poem about lilacs.

One other factor, just a few years earlier, America had celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War.  I can remember fighting the Civil War during recess in grade school.  Back in my hometown in the heart of “Little Dixie,” there were plenty of kids who had inherited Confederate sympathies from their families.

As the great-grandson of a Yankee soldier, I was clearly a Northern sympathizer.  So, one year, I recall us  dividing up and re-fighting great battles out on the playground.

Lincoln was a revered figure in my family.  So, that made an elegy to him even more interesting.

As I re-read Whitman’s poem today, decades later, it feels a bit overdone.  I had forgotten it was so long.

Just my opinion, but Old Walt could have used a good editor.

But here are those lines that are pure genius, and so beautiful that you think Whitman found them fully formed somewhere:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It’s been a tough year for lilacs here in the Northwest.  We had such a warm and early spring that many lilac bushes were tricked into blooming too early.  Our premature spring was interrupted by some cold clear nights that nipped many lilacs in the bud.

Pity, because  there is nothing quite like the heart-shaped leaf and the perfume of the lilac.

“When the dizzy petal peak is past …”

Spring blossoms
 Spring comes early to the Pacific Northwest.

Spring does indeed come early here in western Washington.  Two weeks ago, we were enjoying summer-like weather in early March. Which is unusual, even for here.

The ornamental flowering trees were bursting with blooms, the sun was warm, and I walked for miles in shirtsleeves.  Life was good.

Two weeks and several rainstorms later, and the blossoms are much worse for wear.  In some places the fallen petals cover the sidewalks like snow.  The weather is back to normal — cool and wet, and occasionally windy.

As I walked tonight, I saw the fallen flower petals and was reminded of an old poem, written more than 30 years ago.

PASSION LIKE A FLOWER

Passion like a flower must expire.
Nothing can be rigged to spare desire
From life’s rigors — magic nor petitions.
Petals fall to various conditions.

When the dizzy petal-peak is past,
Some folks act as if the bloom could last,
Pick some wilting lilacs for their table,
Haul them homeward just to show they’re able,

Plunk them in a fruit jar lately washed
Clean of last fall’s bounty, cooked and squashed —
Like they thought the glass itself had power
To delay the spoiling of the flower.

It may work a day, two days, or so,
Then the smell and color start to go.
Nothing glassy can preserve desire;
Passion like a flower must expire.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Back in college, I had a poetry professor who believed William Butler Yeats was the greatest poet the world had ever seen.

Dr. John A. Bernstein was one of those rare teachers who could instill a passion for the subject matter in the hearts of his students. And that suited me just fine because I was not taking the class to fulfill a major requirement or to get into grad school.

It was the early 70s. I was seeking truth, beauty and love. I was taking Dr. Bernstein’s class to immerse myself in the great poets of the English language.

We spent a lot of time with Dylan Thomas, with Yeats and with Robert Frost. I was familiar with Frost from my childhood. But Yeats was a new discovery.

Frankly, I did not share my teacher’s unbridled enthusiasm for this Irish poet. I was a spiritually promiscuous as anyone in those days, but Yeats’s forays into spiritualism and automatic writing freaked me out.

Besides that, his poetry simply did not resonate with me. Mostly. Except for his poignant poem, When You Are Old.

Almost certainly written for his lover Maud Gonne, who had rejected his proposal of marriage at least three times. It’s a fairly straightforward poem, but touching and one of my favorites.

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Poets on poetry

George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633)

By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.

I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.

Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.

But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.

When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.

Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.

But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.

The Quiddity
by George Herbert

My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.

Hawaii haiku — Green Sand Beach

Green Sand Beach
Green Sand Beach

Near the south end of Hawaii’s Big Island, which is the southern-most spot in the United States, is Green Sand Beach.

It’s a magical spot — and secluded. Unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you need to walk 2.5 miles from the closest decent road. When first come to the end of the path and get to the edge of the cliff, you almost can’t believe it. You survey a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay, ringed by rocky cliffs, with the bluest water washing ashore on a perfect sandy beach.

Then, you have to clamber down the rocky cliff to get to the water. But it is so worth it.

The sand is literally green. Some miracle of volcanic rock formation has created just the right conditions for this little beach to have the most beautiful olive green sand. The day we were there was perfect. Hot and sunny. With a nice strong waves coming in, perfect for body surfing.

I tried to go with the flow of the waves and was body slammed into the surf more than once.  It was so much fun, I didn’t care that the waves were having their way with me.   I had green sand coming out of my ears for a month.

We learned that clothing was optional at Green Sand Beach. It’s so remote, who’s going to care? Or enforce rules?

And, of course, it led to haiku.

What kind of island
is this never-winter place?
Even the sand is green!

Young hippie couple
living how I’d tried to live
thirty years ago

“Would you mind if I
went topless?” she asked.  Why no,
not on Green Sand Beach!

“Oh love! for love I could not speak”

Pontefract licorice cakes tin
“In the licorice fields at Pontefract”

John Betjeman had what you could call a checkered career.

He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”

During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering.  One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army.  But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.

You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

I don’t fancy all of his poetry, but sometimes he really hits me between the eyes. Like his poem about love, “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract.”

His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.

The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman

In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.

The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.

She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.